Julia M. Usher connects her love for creative baking to her mother's kitchen. Her latest book, "Ultimate Cookies" (Gibbs Smith, $24.99) provides cookie projects that put a sweet face on any season, but appropriately tugs heartstrings when cookies fill a traditional role this time of year.
"There is always this notion about so much to do and not enough time. I would urge people to slow down and savor this time in the kitchen. You shouldn't shortchange these expressions of love and sharing. Each of these are home treasures. They are gifts that mark an occasion," she said.
Her new book follows impressions from touring the country with her original "Cookie Swap" book, which won three Cordon d'Or Culinary Academy Awards.
"It was a natural jump-off. In the first one, there were decorative cookies that weren't fully explained and the question was how do you decorate them," she said. The Webster Groves resident, who created one-of-a-kind cake sensations for seven years in her bakery AzucArte, is president-elect of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
She developed projects one-at-a-time for the book. Local photographer Steve Adams demonstrates processes and results.
"I make it accessible. For those who might be intimidated, there are levels of sophistication one to three. I suggest becoming fully devoted to the techniques, which work forever, in the beginning of the book. Each one also offers some faster alternatives," Usher said. She lists tools and equipment for both starter and seasoned decorator.
She includes favorite recipes for cutout sugar cookies, shortbread and gingerbread and flavor variations, plus chocolate and blonde brownies, "macarons," meringues, bendable tuiles, fillings and frostings.
She displays 20 cookie cutters, but her total collection is about 1,000. She finds open tin cutters make cleaner cuts over heavier, blunt copper ones with handles. Her goal is baking a flat, well-shaped, even cookie canvas. They are used in "Holiday Yummies," which include place cards and ornaments, as well as her favorite 3-D projects of snow globes, sleds and trees.
Usher adds shortening to butter to improve shape and crispness in her cookies. Evenly rolling them 1/8- to 3/16-inch thick minimizes domed centers. She likes to cut and bake cookies on parchment paper or a silicone baking mat atop an upside-down cookie sheet.
Chilled dough rolls best. She prefers mixing two batches at a time, to switch one bowl into the freezer for a super-chill while rolling dough from the other. An offset spatula — its blade is offset from the handle at about a 45-degree angle — helps transfer delicate cookies without cracking. When she has the "luxury of time," she bakes one pan at a time to avoid uneven browning.
On book tour, Usher stows three overweight suitcases. One of her carryons is a tiered cupcake caddy holding 80 cookies to stow overhead or under her seat.
Her appreciation of Royal Icing's flexibility for decorating stems from her cake-baking days.
2 lb. confectioner's sugar
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
About 11 tbsp. pasteurized egg white (or 5 large egg whites)
Flavoring to taste
Soft gel food coloring of choice, to desired shade (optional)
Mix confectioner's sugar and cream of tartar in bowl of electric mixer. Stir in egg whites by hand to moisten sugar.
Using whip attachment of electric mixer, beat mixture on low speed just until egg whites are evenly incorporated. Scrape down sides of bowl. On medium-high to highest speed, continue to beat about 2 minutes until icing is silky and very white. It lightens and thickens as it is beaten. Beat in flavoring and food coloring. Mix well before using.
Makes 4-1/2 to 5 cups, enough to top-coat 4 to 5 dozen (3-inch) cookies.
Julia's tips: Tinted icing is best used the day mixed. Always cover the surface flush with plastic wrap to avoid crust which forms quickly.
It also can be stored in refrigerator one to two days. To use, bring icing to room temperature, stir vigorously to restore original consistency and tint as desired. Once applied, icing should remain at room temperature to set as crunchy, candy-like coating.
Addition of food coloring or flavoring, beating time and normal egg size variations may affect consistency. After adjusting, it can be thickened with a little confectioner's sugar or thinned with small amount of water.